Introducing Afghanistan

the kite runner

What’s it about?
The Kite Runner is about Afghanistan. It was, I think, written to personalize Afghanistan to America, by an Afghani immigrant to the US. It was published in the year after 9/11, I’m sure because there was such a voracious appetite for any information about Afghanistan at that time. The story in the book is about a boy, Amir, and his servant boy growing up together; they are separated by a tragedy that Amir does his best to make up for as an adult.

Why should you read it?
It really does serve as an introduction to Afghanistan to a Western audience. Is it sanitized/caricatured for Western eyes? Probably. But introductions are often like that. There are also some clunky metaphor moments (it is Khaled Hosseini’s first novel), but it is overall a good story. The main character isn’t particularly likable – which is a whole other debate, should characters be likable? – but I was moved by the overall story. In a good way.

Look, The Kite Runner was incredibly significant when it first came out – there were no common Afghani-American stories available. This is a lovely introduction to the country and the culture.

Book club for teenagers

looking for alaska

What’s it about?
Looking for Alaska is a young adult novel about a boy who goes to boarding school and makes some friends, plans some pranks, falls into what might be love (or might be lust) with a girl named Alaska who already has a boyfriend, and generally deals with growing up.

Why should you read it?
Looking for Alaska is realistic fiction about being a teenager; about feeling like you don’t fit in; and also about death and grieving. It’s well-written and sensitive without being overly touchy-feely. And given that there’s a reading guide written by the author in the back of the book, it’s apparently also widely taught in schools these days. Perhaps it takes the place of A Separate Peace? They feel like similar stories to me. I enjoyed it.

Skippable

extremely loud & incredibly close

What’s it about?
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is about a boy whose father is killed in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in NYC. He’s gifted and a little weird and has a mother who is seemingly completely uninterested in him. Or maybe he’s just uninterested in his mother. He was certainly closer to his father. He’s going on a quest to solve a mystery he thinks his father left him.

Why should you read it?
Don’t. At least, I couldn’t. I couldn’t get over the odd writing style – meant to convey the main character’s high intelligence and immaturity, but I found it distracting. I also couldn’t get over the mother’s seeming disinterest in her son. I get that she wanted to let him grieve in his own way, and I also get that he was pushing her away. But to be so completely disconnected? No.

Revisiting Austen

Death Comes to Pemberley

What’s it about?
Death Comes to Pemberley is about the Darcys from Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie and Darcy are happily married; Jane and Bingley live nearby. Lydia and Wickham are traveling with Denny nearby, and coming through the Pemberley woods when Denny leaps out of the carriage, followed by Wickham. Denny’s body is found later, Wickham is, of course, covered in blood and is the main suspect. And every mystery reader knows that the first main suspect is almost never the person who actually did it. So Lizzie and Darcy must figure out who actually killed Denny.

Why should you read it?
Don’t. This was a did-not-finish for me. Pride and Prejudice is full of charm but Death Comes to Pemberley wasn’t. Austen was a great master of her characters, but that delicacy and complexity doesn’t come through in this book. PD James is a great mystery author, and the plot is, I’m sure, quite good. But I missed the familiar characters, so put it aside.

A cute distraction

Let It Snow

What’s it about?
Let It Snow is three stories/novellas that focus on different characters that are all tangentially related to each other. The through-line of all three stories is that there is a snowstorm. A train gets stuck in a snowdrift. A teenaged girl, a teenaged boy, and a group of cheerleaders all leave the train to go to the nearby Waffle House. The first story is about the teenaged girl (written by Maureen Johnson), the second story is about friends of the  Waffle House employees (written by John Green), and the last story is about the teenaged boy (written by Lauren Myracle).

Why Should You Read It?
Because you need brain candy. I tossed this one off quickly while I had a cold and only a little brainpower. My tween-aged daughter enjoyed it, but I don’t think will be re-reading it like she does her favorite books. Still: an adorable distraction.

Who are you?

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit

What’s it about?
The Man in the Rockefeller Suit is a true crime novel about a German man who didn’t like who he was. So he pretended to be a series of other people, including a man called Clark Rockefeller. He implied that he was an illegitimate Rockefeller cousin, deceived a many, and conned a lot of others out of their money. He was caught when he tried to kidnap his daughter (after he lost custody of her in a divorce).

Why should you read it?
Because it’s a fascinating story, to think that someone could get away with impersonating American royalty for more than a decade without getting caught. It’s a news-y account – Walter Kirn also has a book about Clark Rockefeller, but his is more memoir-ish. This is a report of who Clark Rockefeller was and how he spent his adult life. I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard about him before reading this book, honestly. It seems like it would be right up American’s true-crime alley. It’s a good, light read.

Wuv. Tru wuv….

Landline

What’s it about?
Landline is an adult fiction book about marriage. It uses the story of a woman whose marriage is falling apart to talk about the emotional connection that two people make in a long-term relationship. It also uses the impossible: a landline to talk to the past. Georgie’s husband and children have gone to Nebraska for Christmas; Georgie has had to stay back in LA for work, an incredible opportunity that came up at the very last minute. When Georgie calls them via her cell phone, it’s the present-time husband. When she calls via an old rotary phone connected to the wall, she talks to her husband from their college years. It’s a magic trick the author uses to get the two of them to talk honestly about all the issues that a married couple has.

Why should you read it?
Landline is cute. I like that it’s about a long-term relationship, in a real way. It’s not about falling apart, not really, and it’s not about falling in love. It’s about the ties that come from a life spent together. You don’t see much fiction that concentrates on that, much less that compares it to a friendship of similar length. (I wish that friendship had been a bit more fleshed out.) Also, I was grumpy that the conflict in the marriage came from a woman putting her career first. Can we please stop that trope? But overall: cute. Fun. Not life-changing.

Science and Ethics

Henrietta Lacks

What’s it about?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is two stories, really. One story is the history of cell cultures and how medicine uses them to research disease. The other story is about Henrietta Lacks’ family. Her cells revolutionized medical research, yet her family continues to be downtrodden and not compensated. They didn’t even know her cells had been taken for many years. It shows how institutionalized racism was (and is?) still in the US, and how that exists side by side with science.

Why should you read it?
Aside from the fact that everyone else already has? Because it’s an interesting story, particularly in conjunction with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on The Case for Reparations. The law around who owns your cells that have been taken for medical samples was non-existent for a long time. It’s still very, very young. It’s not just Henrietta Lacks and her family. There are other cases involving other people. Should they be compensated for the cells that would not exist without their bodies? Legally and ethically, it’s interesting. Would it be justice to start compensating the Lacks family? The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks both teaches you science and raises ethical questions. It’s worth your time.

Be yourself

A Wrinkle in Time

What’s it about?
A Wrinkle in Time is a YA classic. If you need a refresher: Meg O’Keefe’s father has gone missing. Her mother and father are both scientists, she is the oldest of four, including twins, Sandy and Dennys, and the youngest, Charles Wallace. Events start one night during a late fall New England thunderstorm, when Mrs Whatsit visits to tell them all there is such a thing as a tesseract. Meg and Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin head off on an adventure with Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which to rescue Meg’s father.

Why should you read it?
It really is a classic. It’s wonderful for any scientifically inclined kids to see how their smarts can make a difference, it also illustrates how being different can make you uncomfortable, stand out in a crowd that you maybe don’t want to stand out of. But it ultimately leads you down the path that being different is what makes you you. It’s what makes us all wonderful and individual and worthy of love. And love is the most important thing. It’s a wonderful book.

A Grand Love

The Last Great Dance on Earth

What’s it about?
The Last Great Dance on Earth is the third of three novels about Empress Josephine. This book remains a very intimate portrait of her and her family, their loves and lives. But it’s probably the grandest part of her story. She’s fully in the palace, living the life of an empress, haunted by what happened to Marie Antoinette. Her continuing inability to get pregnant with Napoleon’s heir (likely because of her imprisonment during the Revolution) leads to their eventual divorce, where she moves to a country house (still a small palace). Napoleon is shown to continue to love her – wikipedia even states that “he had married a womb” (of his second wife). Little mention is made of Napoleon’s love affairs. I suppose it is the French myth that a man can remain married to one woman while having sex with many; a woman must remain loyal to her husband. To be fair, the first book does address this point – Josephine learns that this is what is expected of a good French wife. This volume chronicles her downfall – the complications of life at court, his family’s continuing jealousy and scheming, and her eventual death at her home in suburban Paris.

Why should you read it?
Because the three books together make up one story. There is no drop-off in quality from book to book and they really do read as one whole, split into three to make them manageable. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that the publisher releases them all as a single volume some day. They are a lovely portrait of life in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.